Upon coming to power at the end of 1917, the Bolsheviks immediately implemented sweeping reforms. On social issues, they separated church and state, the Orthodox Church having long been a pillar of support for the old tsarist order. They abolished the church hierarchy and nationalized its property. Those who wanted a place to worship had to petition their local council, and those churches allowed to operate had to depend on donations. The state ceased its recognition of religious holidays and instated secular holidays such as May Day and the anniversary of Red October. The government even switched to the Gregorian calendar from the Julian calendar, joining most of the Western world despite the preferences of the Church. The Bolsheviks also secularized marriages, with spouses being able to pursue divorce through civil means (MacKenzie and Curran 1997, p. 147). This meant that women no longer needed the permission of their husbands to end their marriages. The Bolsheviks appointed Aleksandra Kollontai as People’s Commissar for Social Welfare, and she founded a communist women’s section (the “Zhenotdel”) in 1919 dedicated to bettering conditions for women, increasing their educational opportunities and informing them about the Bolsheviks’ social reforms (Von Geldern 2014). The state also decriminalized homosexuality, although this remained in effect in Russia; most of the soviet republics in Transcaucasia and Central Asia banned homosexuality in the 1920s (Healey 2001, p. 258). In the 1930s, the Soviet Union would reverse several of these developments, eliminating women’s departments as redundant and abolishing legal abortion in the hopes of reinvigorating a falling birth rate. Nevertheless, at the time, the Bolsheviks succeeded in enacting the most socially progressive policies yet seen in history.
Seeking allies on the world stage, the Bolsheviks established the Third or Communist International (the Comintern) in 1919 to organize parties modeled after the Bolshevik structure and to spread proletarian revolution. The first president of the Comintern Executive Committee, Grigory Zinoviev, issued 21 conditions for membership in the group, including ideological consistency with the Bolsheviks and opposition to non-revolutionary left-wing parties. When hopes of repeated revolutions soon dimmed, however, the Comintern muted its militancy, especially between 1920 and 1921, when the Bolsheviks signed border treaties with many of its European and Asian neighbors and even concluded a trade agreement with Great Britian (Kort 2006, pp. 158-159). The failure of other European countries to replicate the Bolshevik revolution dampened dreams of a grand union of socialist nations led by Moscow. Gradually, the Comintern endorsed member parties forming restricted alliances with other socialist groups in their countries, including political parties and trade unions, so long as they did not fully embrace “Centrist ideology” (Siegelbaum 2014a). Moscow would later take this validation of left-wing unison farther in response to the rise of fascism in Europe in the coming decades, with calls for “popular fronts” against the fascists.
More than any aspect of domestic or foreign politics, the Bolsheviks were concerned with the economy. In December 1917, they set up the Supreme Council of the National Economy (VSNKh), and straightaway began to mobilize state resources for the civil war in what became known as “War Communism.” This was more a set of military measures meant to provide the Bolsheviks with the means to win the war than anything else; after all, the Bolsheviks did not control much territory beyond central European Russia at this point. However temporary it might have been, the actions taken under “War Communism” were by no means minor. The Bolsheviks nationalized the major industries and instituted mandatory labor for all males over sixteen years, issuing labor books to track employment and work behavior. The devastation wrought by the civil war and the intense discipline imposed by “War Communism” led to industrial strife and despair. The number of industrial workers in Moscow dropped from around 190,000 in 1917 to around 81,000 in 1921 (Wade 2001, p. 71). When the civil war finally ended in 1920, around 7 million people had died from fighting, starvation or disease, and in the following years, famine claimed around 5 million more victims. Accusing the “rural bourgeoisie” of hoarding grain, the Bolsheviks tasked “committees of poor peasants” with waging class war in the countryside.
The peasantry remained complacent during the civil war, perhaps in the knowledge that, as bad as Bolshevik grain requisitions were, the Whites would have been worse had they triumphed, most likely kicking the peasants off the land they had seized and reducing them once more to total servitude (Hosking 1985, p. 76). Most peasants probably reasoned that it was better to tolerate the socialists who had permitted land seizures than the tsarist officers who spoke openly of restoring traditional serfdom. When the Whites were defeated, peasant rebellions broke out across Russia, primarily in the southwest as well as in Siberia. Perhaps the best known of these, the Tambov Rebellion, persisted for a year before it was put down through a mixture of repression and concessions, with military force supplemented by the ending of the appropriation of grain in the province (ibid., pp. 78-79). For the most part, the Tambov revolt and others like it were not coordinated political movements so much as visceral reactions intended as expressions of opposition to specific agricultural policies.
In the cities, the much-diminished ranks of the workers also demonstrated their dissatisfaction with the “iron discipline” associated with the Bolsheviks’ wartime policies. In February 1921, some workers went on strike in Petrograd and the Red Army put down the demonstrations by force. A month later, at the nearby Kronstadt naval base, the sailors stationed there declared their defiance to the state and set up their own Provisional Revolutionary Committee. They called for increased political freedoms for non-Bolshevik socialist parties as well as free and fair elections to the workers’ councils. After five days of negotiations, the sailors refused to compromise and the Bolsheviks decided to use force once again, before the coming spring could melt the ice around the base and leave it isolated. A memorandum written by an organization of anti-Bolshevik exiles also shows the Krondstadt uprising had the potential to become a rallying point for White émigrés still hoping to bring down socialism (Avrich 1970). After storming the fortress, the Red Army took the base, with thousands killed on both sides. Those rebels who survived faced either execution or sentences in concentration camps (Kort 2006, pp. 143-144). With the suppression of the Krondstadt rebellion came an end to the major challenges to Bolshevik rule.
For decades, the Krondstadt rebellion has served as the defining moment for many on the left and right as to when the Bolsheviks fully betrayed the principles of the 1917 revolutions, choosing state power over people power. Such critics argue that the sailors’ proposals called for democratic practices and a multiparty regime, and a demand for libertarian socialism embodied by the early revolutionary councils and even articulated by Lenin himself in his 1917 work, The State and Revolution. The fact that Krondstadt itself had also long been a Bolshevik stronghold and supporter of the revolution only seemed to underline the fact the Bolsheviks had turned their back on popular empowerment and chosen to become bloody autocrats as harsh as the tsarist state.
These criticisms are somewhat inaccurate. Many of the Kronstadt sailors who participated in the 1920 revolt were, veterans and recruits alike, from rural areas that, as we have seen, suffered greatly during the civil war years. One of the leaders of the rebellion, Stepan Petrichenko, came from a family of Ukrainian peasants. He had witnessed the austere conditions of “War Communism” firsthand when visiting his home in 1920 (Lincoln 1989, p. 495). Yet, this does not deny that the Kronstadt rebels had sincere grievances. There seems little reason to believe that the rebellion was anything other than a genuine grassroots insurrection by left-wingers disillusioned with the Bolsheviks. After escaping the Red Army reprisals, Petrichenko fled to Finland where he remained a left-wing politician and even supported the socialists there, prompting the Finnish government to arrest him in 1945 and turn him over to the Soviet Union, which unsurprisingly imprisoned him before his death mere years later.
Leon Trotsky, as the head of the Red Army in 1921, spent much of his later life defending Bolshevik policy at Kronstadt, primarily against anti-Bolshevik anarchists like Emma Goldman, who were irate that left-wing revolutionaries would use state power to execute other radical leftists. In Stalinism and Bolshevism (1937), Trotsky argued that anarchists are incorrect to use Kronstadt as evidence of Bolshevism intrinsically leading to an oppressive centralized state, since the Bolsheviks shared the anarchist wish of abolishing the state through creating the necessary conditions for communism, when the state would wither away. Until those conditions were realized, however, the Bolsheviks had to use the power of the state to defend the revolution. He also claims that he and Lenin were not inherently hostile to anarchists and anarchism, and even discussed plans to permit some revolutionary anarchists to experiment with a stateless society, but the realities of the civil war and existential threats to the Bolsheviks prevented such projects. Hostility to Bolshevism foreign and domestic necessitated the quelling of rebellions, right-wing and left-wing, as well as the prohibition of non-Bolshevik parties. It was a matter of accident, not design, that these measures meant to preserve the revolutionary program ended up facilitating (in Trotsky’s view) the rise of Stalin and the transformation of the Soviet Union into an authoritarian state.
Whatever the later legacy of the Krondstadt rebellion, it made clear that the Bolsheviks needed to change their approaches to governance. By the end of 1921, they had replaced the austere and punitive policies of “War Communism” with the New Economic Policy (NEP). Originally intended as a means to motivate greater agricultural production, the NEP evolved into the permission of private ownership in the production of consumer goods. The government remained responsible for the “commanding heights” – the major industries, transportation and foreign trade – but in other areas, private buying and selling thrived. As planned, the agricultural sector recovered, but the economy struggled due to the “scissors crisis” of 1922-1923,
so-called because of the sharp divergence between grain prices and the cost of manufactured products. Essentially, the state bought abundant grain at low prices, but because the factories had yet to recover from recent wars, the farmers could not afford to buy consumer goods. In response, the government terminated the employment of staff at state-owned industries, increased the number of consumer cooperatives and forced company trusts to sell off their warehoused stocks (Siegelbaum 2014b). Also in the industrial sector, the state retained control over economic planning through Gosplan, the State Planning Commission, and state-run firms employed over 80% of workers. The state did permit the operation of small businesses, however, as long as they employed 20 employees or less and produced non-essential goods and services such as handicrafts. By 1925, overall economic production had reached close to pre-war levels (MacKenzie and Curran 1997, p. 160). The Bolsheviks had created a system that was neither socialist nor capitalist, but a prototype of the “mixed economy” seen all around the world today, with a combination of public and private ownership.
If the NEP represented a strategic retreat by the Bolsheviks on economic matters, in the political sphere they continued to take a hard line. In 1921, they passed two resolutions. The first effectively brought trade unions under the control of the Bolsheviks and ostracized the Workers’ Opposition, a movement within the party that had called for greater trade union autonomy and union control over the industries. The second resolution banned all “factions” among the Bolsheviks entirely, limiting dissent to sanctioned periods of decision-making conducted by the party leadership. A majority vote of the Bolshevik Central Committee could expel anyone found guilty of spreading “factionalism.” The Bolsheviks also started to purge their ranks, cutting their membership ostensibly to remove those merely seeking status and power. Outside the party, those Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries who had somehow managed to survive the civil war found their parties proscribed (Kort 2006, p. 148). As in other episodes from the revolution, the anti-democratic nature of these moves seems less sinister when one recollects that the Bolsheviks never purported to be a democratic organization. Their concern remained seeing through the revolution, and considering how unpopular “War Communism” and the subdual of popular rebellions had made them, they had some cause to be fearful that sharing power would mean losing it. It is important to note that several Bolsheviks later critical of the centralization of power in the Soviet Union, such as Trotsky and Karl Radek, supported the clampdown on dissent, as the revolution was considered too important to be left to the public mood. In addition, despite his enshrinement of party unity, Lenin himself to the very end generally permitted debate within the party, preferring to persuade his opponents than to imprison or kill them.
Indeed, well into the 1920s, the Bolsheviks actively debated the issues of industrialization and the collectivization of agriculture. The Right, so-named because of their favoring the status quo, wanted to maintain the balance between industrial and agricultural prices set by the NEP and claimed socialism could be achieved slowly and organically. Proponents, including Nikolai Bukharin and Alexei Rykov, argued that increased farming production would stimulate demand for more industrial goods, resulting in higher industrial production and thus lower industrial prices, until the town and country were equal (MacKenzie and Curran 1997, p. 160). The Left Opposition, including Trotsky and the economist Yevgeni Preobrazhensky, railed against what they perceived as the “bureaucratization” of the revolution, with policies guided by technocrats and specialists rather than by revolutionaries. In their view, industrialization would only occur through the vigorous appropriation of agricultural surpluses via taxation and price controls. The Bolsheviks had to pursue “super-industrialization” in order to catch up with the industrialized countries of the West, which of course had industrialized over centuries (Siegelbaum 2014c). The Bolshevik leadership deemed these proposals too excessive and too risky and the status quo prevailed. Rather than bypassing capitalist development and attempting a socialist economy from the start, the Bolsheviks came to accept limited capitalism as a way to construct communism with bourgeois hands.
Lenin especially came to view the NEP as more than a fleeting change in policy. Like many other Bolsheviks, he worried that a flourishing of private trade, especially after years of war and shortages, would allow capitalism to re-establish itself. For the most part, however, he remained convinced that as long as the state steered the economy and encouraged democratic consumer cooperatives, socialism would eventually come to Russia (Figes 1996, p. 770). He also became increasingly concerned with the problem of “bureaucratization” and the growing lack of transparency and accountability of the government to the people. He realized that the Bolsheviks, having been devoted to overthrowing the state, had to learn how to rule, but he still detested the dearth of efficiency and civility on the part of government officials. He bemoaned that many Bolsheviks lacked “humaneness and feeling in dealing with people” (Ulam 1998, pp. 531-532). In 1919, he created an office of inspector general, the Rabkrin, with oversight powers over government agencies as well as “control commissions” to fight misconduct within the newly formed Communist Party. The first head of the Rabkrin was Joseph Stalin, a Bolshevik noted for his industriousness.
As People’s Commissar for Nationalities Stalin had been heavily involved in the 1921 Red Army invasion of Georgia, his native land, and in 1922, he had become General Secretary of the Communist Party due to his support for Lenin’s crusade against “factionalism.” Lenin praised Stalin for his willingness to take on responsibilities and protect the party, but a rift grew between them over the 1922 Georgian Affair. Stalin and another Georgian Bolshevik, Sergo Ordzhonikidze, wanted to subordinate Georgia to Moscow and jettison any nationalist feelings by creating a Transcaucasian soviet republic including Georgia along with Armenia and Azerbaijan. The local moderates disputed this and appealed to Lenin, who agreed that the soviet republics should be politically equal. Lenin suffered a pair of strokes in 1922 and 1923, however, and due to his poor health, could no longer mount an effective opposition against Stalin. In March 1923, Lenin and Stalin had a personal falling out. The past December, Lenin had dictated a letter to his wife and fellow Bolshevik, Nadezhda Krupskaya. When Stalin learned of this, he verbally abused Krupskaya for placing undue strain on Lenin while he was recovering. Lenin perceived the incident as a personal insult whereas Stalin considered Krupskaya just another “comrade” and thus undeserving of special treatment (Figes 1996, pp. 800-801). Lenin suffered his third and final stroke a few days later, leaving him an invalid unable to speak more than a few monosyllabic words. His faculties had not endured long enough for him to satisfactorily address his concerns about party operations or government bureaucracy, but he had led his cadre of revolutionaries to victory and to the establishment of the first socialist state.
In December 1922, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) was founded, consisting of the Russian, Ukrainian, Belorussian and Transcaucasian Soviet Federated Socialist Republics. Contrary to the Georgian Affair, the early Soviet Union devolved great cultural autonomy to its member republics, especially compared to the previous tsarist regime and its policies of “Russification.” Non-Russians could use their own native tongues and practice their own cultural traditions freely, and the government even played a role in creating written languages for some of the illiterate peoples in the eastern provinces (Kort 2006, p. 155). The state also passed laws against anti-Semitism, although it suppressed the teaching of Hebrew due to its religious connotations, encouraging Soviet Jews to use Yiddish instead. In Central Asia, the Soviets developed a Latin and later Cyrillic script to replace the Arabic alphabet in order to downplay connections with other Muslim peoples. In terms of actual administration, the Soviet Union devolved some portfolios wholly to the soviet republics, including education, health and social services. Other matters, such as foreign relations, foreign trade and the military remained with the central government. The central and republic governments shared jurisdiction over domestic economic issues like employment and industry. A constitution would be formed and formally approved in 1924.
In January 1924, Lenin died at the age of 53. Against the wishes of himself and his family, the state embalmed his body and put it on display in a mausoleum in Red Square. Petrograd, the city where the 1917 revolutions had played out, became Leningrad. Stalin may have initiated the “Lenin cult” from his understanding of religious symbolism learned in his early seminary education. The notion of “God-building” – that is, creating a divine aura around the “new man” formed under socialism – also influenced the transformation of Lenin from the leading Bolshevik theoretician to a Christ-like figure in the Soviet psyche (Hosking 1985, pp. 132-133). Whatever propaganda may have come later, at the time an estimated half a million people attended Lenin’s funeral to pay their respects, as wreaths and somber eulogies poured into Moscow from across the Soviet Union. This grief was genuine and predated any Soviet hagiographies. While some Western historians have sought to portray Lenin as a cruel dictator or a monstrous murder from the outset, coming to power via a coup and supported only his key followers among the Bolsheviks, the truth is that he had become the face and the driving force of the revolutions. It would be erroneous to assert that he created the Soviet Union on his own or that he was anything close to an infallible, omnipotent individual, but it also cannot be denied that his great contributions to forging a new socialist society were widely recognized in 1924.
Of all the events and incidents concerning the Bolsheviks, none is more commonly misunderstood as Lenin’s succession and Stalin’s rise to power. The typical narrative repeated by historians is that Lenin wrote a “testament” before his death, deriding Stalin and naming Trotsky his successor. Stalin suppressed or destroyed this testament (depending on what version you hear). As part of a triumvirate with Lev Kamenev and Grigory Zinoviev, Stalin isolated and then exiled Trotsky, before then turning on his partners and then executed them as counterrevolutionaries. In this account, Trotsky is the benevolent and mild-mannered hero, undone by a conspiracy of his jealous rivals, including the crude and underhanded Stalin. Obviously, Trotsky’s followers favor this story, but it is also common to hear it repeated by left-wing libertarians and even right-wingers as evidence of the dangers of too much centralized authority and proof that “the revolution eats its children.” Thanks to recent scholarship and access to new documents like Stalin’s personal correspondence, a different reality emerges.
First, Lenin did not pen a “testament” so much as a series of notes he took while recovering from one of his strokes. At the time, the prevailing view was that Lenin would return to politics, and Lenin apparently believed this himself. As already mentioned, Lenin was especially concerned with the bureaucratization of the government and the party, and he drafted a number of proposals, such as increasing the size of the Bolsheviks’ Central Committee to 50 to 100 members, and giving the committee oversight over the powers of the Politburo, the Soviet Union’s chief policymaking body. He also reviewed the main personalities in the party besides himself, and while he did take Stalin to task for being “too rude” and amassing a worrying amount of power, he had recriminations for them all. Kamenev and Zinoviev had opposed Lenin’s calls for an armed uprising in late 1917, even leaking Lenin’s plans to the press. The primary proponent of the NEP, Nikolai Bukharin, was popular, but his devotion to limited capitalism made his allegiance to Marxism suspect. Trotsky, meanwhile, suffered from “excessive self-assurance” and spent too much time on administrative matters and not enough on party business (Figes 1996, pp. 800). In fact, even though he held a position in the Politburo, Trotsky did not hold a party post and rarely attended party meetings. With all these criticisms taken together, Lenin seemed less interested in anointing an heir than with making the point that no one man should rule over the party, and that instead the Bolsheviks should look at ways to check institutional power and get rank-and-file members more involved.
To return to Trotsky, his “excessive self-assurance” had been a known problem when it came to his relations with the other Bolsheviks. In 1903, at the Second Congress of the Social Democrats, he had been “irrepressible,” speaking on behalf of the Jewish proletariat (he was middle class) and addressing others with condescension (he referred to an older man as “young comrade”) (Ulam 1998, pg. 189). During the civil war, he alienated others by traveling from battlefield to battlefield in a furnished train, equipped with its own private restaurant. He made sure his political commissars were always dressed in immaculate uniforms. He also dealt with those Bolsheviks who criticized his use of tsarist officers and a strict chain of command in harsh terms. He was not noted for his tact and even he himself admitted he was disliked for his “aristocratism” (Figes 1996, pp. 593-594). This, after all, had been the man who popularized the phrase “the dustbin of history” when referring to the ultimate destination of the Mensheviks when they walked out on the Bolshevik-controlled Second Congress of Soviets in 1917. This was despite the fact he had been more closely aligned with the Mensheviks initially, joining the Bolsheviks only on the outset of the 1917 revolutions. He was a relative newcomver to Bolshevism, and to the regular party membership, he was seen purely as “a specialist on military and economic problems” (Ulam 1998, pg. 575). He had his admirers, but he was not generally beloved.
It would be remiss if we did not also factor in feelings of anti-Semitism. The Whites, Poles and Allies explicitly displayed Trotsky’s Jewish heritage in their propaganda against him, and given the prevalent hostility against Jews in this period, it is reasonable to assume that more than a few Bolsheviks disdained Trotsky for being a Jew. Trotsky himself considered his ethnic identity an issue, turning down the post of Commissar of the Interior in 1917 and Deputy Chairman of the Council of People’s Commissars in 1922 because a Jew in those posts would be too controversial (Figes 1996, pp. 803-804). If Trotsky did not already suffer from his tendencies for pomposity and vanity, in addition to being a late convert to Bolshevism, he also likely fell victim to racism and prejudice.
All of this coalesced into making Trotsky a less than likely successor to Lenin and led to the creation of an “underground Politburo” that consisted of all the Politburo members besides Trotsky. Contrary to popular perception, we know now that there was not so much a Stalin/Kamenev/Zinoviev troika after Lenin’s death as there was an elite executive of seven Bolsheviks: Stalin, Kamenev, Zinoviev, Bukharin, Alexei Rykov and Mikhail Tomsky. These seven met before Politburo meetings and discussed which actions to take and which resolutions to approve before including Trotsky (Stalin, et al. 1995). Thus, there was not so much a Stalin versus Trotsky duel after Lenin’s death, and not even a conflict between Trotsky and the troika. Trotsky was already a marginalized figure in 1923, and Stalin consolidated his power not by removing Trotsky, who was not a threat, but instead by leading an anti-Trotsky campaign with other Bolsheviks.
Lenin’s “testament” was not destroyed or suppressed. Nadezhda Krupskaya brought it to the attention of the Bolsheviks’ Central Committee, which decided not to read it into the record at the 13th Congress of the Russian Communist Party in May 1923. Instead, it was read to each delegation privately, with Stalin offering his resignation as General Secretary, in response to Lenin’s suggestions. The party rejected his resignation. If Lenin had recovered from his strokes, perhaps he could have used his forceful personality and oratorical skills to force the issue, as he did so many times when the Bolsheviks resisted his wishes. As it stood, however, the scales were stacked against eliminating Stalin from the leadership and causing party upheaval, especially with the polarizing personage of Trotsky touted as a possible replacement. For his part, Trotsky must have realized that the chances of him succeeding Lenin were dubious at best.
In October 1923, Trotsky wrote an open letter to the party leadership criticizing them for marginalizing the involvement of the masses in the party. On the heels of Trotsky’s letter came the Declaration of the 46, a missive from 46 party members, largely agreeing with Trotsky and expressing worry that the promotion of “professional party functionaries” was “destroying the independence of the party, replacing the party with a selected bureaucratic apparatus” (Fahlgren 2008). With these letters, the Left Opposition had added to their criticism of the NEP a complaint about intra-party democracy being sacrificed in the name of party unity. These stances were actually consistent, as the objection to the NEP was that it relied on bourgeois specialists from the tsarist economy, and therefore took economic matters out of the hands of the people and the party, much as the Politburo had reduced the input of the general party from political matters. Later that month, the party leadership accused Trotsky of “factionalism” and berated him with numerous personal attacks, mostly variations on his vanity and selfishness. Despite a speech from Trotsky implying that the charges were racially motivated, the Plenum of the Central Committee censured him for trying to split the party in a landslide vote.
It is crucial to note that at this time party members did not fear death for their dissent. The party had banned factions, yes, but among the Bolsheviks, there had been open debates over the NEP, intra-party democracy, industrialization and other issues. Whatever their disagreements, the partisans on any topic had no cause to believe they would be sentenced to a labor camp in Siberia or placed before a firing squad. Those outside the party could countenance the possibility of being investigated by the Cheka, now the State Political Directorate (GPU) of the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs (NKVD), but party members were generally above such worries. The worst they could expect was to be removed from their posts, as Trotsky would be in the coming years. Perhaps believing that he had nothing more to fear domestically but cognizant of his sequestration on the Politburo, he decided to take his case abroad to foreign sympathizers.
In October 1924, Trotsky published Lessons of October, his reflections on the revolution of late 1917. In this work, he sought to pass on the experiences of the Bolsheviks to socialist revolutionaries in other countries. He also brought attention to how Kamenev and Zinoviev had resisted seizing power at Lenin’s insistence, as well as how, as editors of Pravda, Kamenev and Stalin had initially supported the Provisional Government rather than violent insurrection. As might be expected, Kamenev and Zinoviev were especially furious with Trotsky over this, and even proposed that he be expelled from the party; Stalin, however, refused this. Instead, in a series of speeches and publications, and supported by other Bolsheviks, he contrasted “Leninism” and “Trotskyism,” downplaying the significance of the disagreements among the Bolsheviks as well as Trotsky’s own role in the revolution as secondary to Lenin. He also explored polemics Lenin and Trotsky had written about one another between 1903 and 1917, when Trotsky was still more aligned with the Mensheviks than the Bolsheviks (Stalin 1924). The result of the “literary debate” was the further exaltation of Trotsky outside the Soviet Union, whereas within it the charges against him of dividing the party seemed all the more valid, and Stalin all the more credible as party leader.
The Eastman Affair the following year solidified this perception. Max Eastman, an American socialist and journalist, published Since Lenin Died in 1925, revealing the existence of Lenin’s “testament” and portraying it as Lenin naming Trotsky as his devoted and loyal successor. Encouraged by Trotsky and his supporters, Eastman advanced the misleading interpretation of the document, juxtaposing Trotsky, the “saintly” revolutionary, with the other leading Bolsheviks, who are all corrupt careerists disregarding the wishes of the late leader. Even if the other members of the Politburo had not already been against Trotsky, this inaccurate assessment lauding Trotsky while harshly condemning them would surely have served to dishonor him in their eyes. In the aftermath of the publication, Trotsky remained silent, so Stalin wrote a memorandum listing the errors of Eastman’s account and demanding Trotsky disavow it. Trotsky did so, noting that Lenin did not leave a “testament” but instead a letter of “an internal party character.” While some Trotskyites have construed this as Stalin forcing Trotsky to lie to save his skin, we know from Stalin’s letters that Stalin felt that Trotsky “saved himself” by denouncing Eastman and wanted to publish his memorandum to make it clear that Trotsky only did so under pressure from the Politburo (Stalin, et al. 1995, pp. 21-22). Unemployed and completely discredited in the eyes of the party, Trotsky seemed destined for a downfall.
Yet, in 1926, two of his enemies in the Politburo, Kamenev and Zinoviev, joined with him against Stalin, giving him new political life. Still, Trotsky proved as difficult an ally as ever, and for their own parts, Kamenev and Zinoviev soon lost their bases of support in the Leningrad and Moscow party branches. From the outset, the United Opposition did not possess the institutional or mass support needed to make a true challenge for power (Hosking 1985, p. 145). Zinoviev was, however, the head of the Comintern, and we know from Stalin’s letters that he treated the United Opposition with more seriousness than he regarded the threat posed by Trotsky. Indeed, the Opposition took Stalin and the Politburo to task for their fruitless support of non-revolutionary movements outside the Soviet Union. For example, in 1926, there had been a general strike in the United Kingdom in support of coal miners, with Soviet support; not only did the strike fail, but also the miners had to accept longer hours and lower wages than before. Meanwhile, in China, the Soviet Union encouraged the communists there to collaborate with the nationalist Kuomintang in the hopes of forming a “revolutionary-democratic bloc.” By the summer of 1927, however, the KMT banned the Chinese Communist Party and persecuted its members. Stalin, however, refused to deviate from these policies. In the meantime, he made fresh allegations of factionalism against Kamenev and Zinoviev, using their actions in 1917 against them as well as a telegram allegedly sent by Kamenev that year expressing support not just for the Provisional Government but also for the brother of Tsar Nicholas, Mikhail, who had briefly been tsar following Nicholas’ abdication. Kamenev claimed to have never written the telegram, and numerous witnesses came forward to endorse this, but Stalin and the rest of the Politburo managed to prevent these defenses from being published in the party press. Forced underground, they attempted to operate in secret, but when the NKVD discovered one of their printing presses, the Politburo expelled the Opposition members from the party’s Central Committee and, in the case of Trotsky and Zinoviev, from the party itself. They would be readmitted only if they renounced their actions and admitted their errors in working against the party. Kamenev and Zinoviev did so, thus surrendering any legitimacy they may have had; Trotsky refused to repudiate his opposition and was exiled, but he had long ago been discredited.
As the 1920s ended, the NEP faced extinction. The Soviet Union had reached levels of prewar production, but grain remained scarce on the market. Government price controls prompted affluent peasants (the kulaks) to withhold their grain, hoping for higher prices, leaving the state unable to feed its people or fund new industrial projects. Stalin, like Lenin, initially opposed the idea of forced collectivization of agriculture, preferring “example and persuasion” (MacKenzie and Curran 1997, p. 197-198). He made a U-turn on the issue, however, embracing collectivization and by 1929 implementing it with the full force of his now monumental authority. Some historians have argued Stalin linked collectivization with increasing the grain “tribute” paid to the state to finance industrialization. In both public speeches and private correspondence, however, Stalin argued that the benefits of collectivization – increased state subsidies, less dependence on the kulak saboteurs, access to new equipment – would offset the damaged cause by collection of the tribute. From him, the procurement of grain was the main thing. We also know that his push for all-out collectivization was fueled by reports of remarkable success in Khoper county in the lower Volga region, where the collectivization of farms jumped from 2.2% in June to at least 30% in October (Davies 1980). By the end of the following month, a commission set up to review the Khoper case reported that the state should reduce the rate of collectivization. Stalin thus came to believe that there was no need to adopt a “wait and see” approach, and that all-out collectivization could be accompanied by the liquidation of the affluent peasants as a class (or “dekulakization”). According to Soviet records, the government deported around 400,000 peasant families (over 1.8 million people) to special settlements in eastern Russia or Central Asia between 1930 and 1931 (Kort 2006, p. 205). On the economic front as well, Stalin increasingly used the power of the state to enforce his plans. A letter from 1929 on improving grain procurement asks the Politburo to use the NKVD to put down petty speculators and truculent farmers preventing the state from obtaining its full resources, a suggestion adopted by the Politburo. Nevertheless, in another letter Stalin worries that the security forces will see through the directives unless they too are checked on (Stalin, et al. 1995, pp. 51-52). It at this point that we come to see both how much power Stalin has amassed in his hands but also his own style and outlook on governing.
According to Lars T. Lih, Stalin’s worldview was informed by what he terms the “antibureaucrat scenario.” This perspective stemmed from the long-running Bolshevik concern, expressed by Lenin and others, about the reliance of the new socialist state on “bourgeois specialists” who had not been a part of the revolution and may have even opposed it. To counteract counterrevolution, then, it was necessary to both present a united political front and to constantly monitor progress on the part of the bureaucrats. Whereas Lenin seemed to believe in using oversight and auditing to make this possible, Stalin favored a much more direct, hierarchical structure, wherein those deviating from the spirit of the revolution and party directives needed to be “cleansed” or “purged.” Stalin, in a sense, was in the late 1920s and 1930s drawing from Bolshevik political culture and an established identification and frustration of the problem of bureaucrats and opportunists working against the revolution. Yet, this does not absolve Stalin with how he chose to tackle this problem; he himself chose, for example, to use the Soviet secret police to administer his economic plans, and to judge and mete out punishments against those who, in his view, did not hold “correct” views.
Evidence of the latter can be found in the political demises of Bukharin and Rykov. Like Stalin, they had represented the Bolshevik “Right” against the “Left” Opposition of Trotsky. In the late 1920s, however, Stalin launched a crusade against them as part of a right-wing deviation from socialism. This round of in-fighting must be distinguished from the Trotsky and United Opposition instances, because there was no explicit challenge to Stalin; indeed, Bukharin protested through 1928 and 1929 that he had no political differences with Stalin. Stalin, meanwhile, claimed Bukharin was, at his core, a Kadet posing as a Bolshevik, “more at home in the left wing of a party of petit bourgeous socialists than in the Communist Party, where he is a decrepit, rotten defeatist” (Stalin, et al. 1995, pp. 54-55). Ironically, modern historians have latched on to the notion of a split between Stalin and Bukharin over the NEP (painting Bukharin as “right” and Stalin as “wrong”) while, at the time, Bukharin was vociferous that there was no such split and that their feud stemmed from personal disputes. Rykov, a preeminent Bolshevik on economic matters often overlooked by historians, in 1926 spoke out on the bureaucrat problem at a party conference, but offered a solution more nuanced than Stalin’s total war, calling on the party to separate the good specialists from the bad ones. We know from Stalin’s letters that he from that point considered Rykov to devoid of faith in revolution, a specialist simply showing sympathy with the Soviets (ibid., p. 56). By the end of 1930, Stalin had engineered the removal of Bukharin and Rykov from the Politburo, casting them into the political wilderness. They had met the same fate as Kamenev and Zinoviev despite not showing the same defiance as the United Opposition; it was primarily in Stalin’s own judgment that they had been branded traitors.
As we assess the Soviet Union going into the 1930s, it is tempting to speculate how things may have been different had Lenin recovered from his strokes or at least made some of his final proposals a reality. Stalin would have ceased to be the General Secretary of the party, certainly. There no doubt would have been some in-fighting over the issues of foreign policy and the economy, much as there had been intra-party debate in the past, although party members would likely have remained immune from expulsion save for instances where they clearly went against decided doctrine. It is doubtful we would have seen the sort of personal verdicts on ideological purity turned into official practice as witnessed on the part of Stalin. The “bureaucrat problem” would have remained an issue, but it is possible Rykov’s subtle solution of keeping the good and eliminating the bad could have prevailed. Likewise, although the NEP would likely not have provided the internal capital necessary to fuel industrialization due to its dependence on voluntary compliance on the part of peasants who had been hostile to the Bolsheviks since the days of “War Communism,” the shift to forced collectivization need not have proceeded at the breakneck speed that it did. It must be admitted, though, given the unresolved hostility between the Bolsheviks and the peasants, it is difficult to envision how the wide gulf between the state and the countryside could have been bridged to avoid any top-down coercion.
Conjecture and speculation aside, it is apparent that the Soviet Union by 1930 had changed in character dramatically from the conclusion of the civil war in 1920. The Bolsheviks held uncontested power, but such were the divisions within the party itself that much of the 1920s had been devoted to contests over power and between personalities. Small steps toward socialism through partial capitalism as represented by the NEP had been replaced by a bold economic offensive meant to bring the Soviet Union to a level of development equal to the industrialized nations. Abroad, those Bolsheviks dreaming of more revolutions and a long list of countries within the Communist International had come to temper their expectations, hoping instead that the global left could counter the rising tide of reactionaries and fascism. At the same time, the Soviet Union would devote much of its energy at home to repressing and purging its enemies, with both regular citizens and prominent Bolsheviks suspected of political crimes.
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